Iraqi Kurds reach Sinjar road in bid to retake IS-held town
Kurdish Iraqi fighters, backed by the US-led air campaign, have gained control of a strategic road after launching an assault aimed at retaking the town of Sinjar.
The town was overrun by Islamic State last year in an onslaught that caused the flight of tens of thousands of Yazidis and first prompted the US to launch airstrikes against the militants.
Hours into the operation, the Kurdish Regional Security Council said forces were in control of a section of Highway 47, one of IS's most active supply lines, completely isolating Sinjar from militant strongholds in Syria and northern Iraq.
The Kurdish fighters also said they had secured the villages of Gabarra, on the western front, and Tel Shore, Fadhelya and Qen on the eastern front.
Some 7,500 peshmerga fighters were closing in on Sinjar from three fronts, the security council said in a statement.
Operation Free Sinjar aims to retake the town and the highway, and to establish "a significant buffer zone to protect the city and its inhabitants from incoming artillery".
Heavy gunfire broke out early on Thursday as peshmerga fighters began their approach amid aerial bombardment.
The coalition said 24 airstrikes were carried out over the past day, striking nine militant tactical units, nine staging areas and destroying 27 fighting positions, among other targets.
Major General Seme Busal, commander of one of the front lines, said: "(Peshmerga) troops are holding their position, waiting for reinforcements and more airstrikes so they can then move into the centre of the town. Airstrikes have been very important to the operation getting to the point where it is now."
Captain Chance McCraw, a military intelligence officer with the US coalition, told journalists on Wednesday: "If you take out this major road, that is going to slow down the movement of (IS's quick reaction force) elements.
"If they're trying to move from Raqqa over to Mosul, they're going to have to take these back roads and go through the desert, and it's going take hours, maybe days longer to get across."
Iraqi state TV said Kurdish peshmerga also reached the Sinjar mayor's office, although Kurdish officials did not immediately confirm it.
Kurdish officials said clouds of smoke above Sinjar on Thursday were making it more difficult for coalition planes to carry out airstrikes as thousands of fighters moved towards the town from the east and west and massed at the edges.
Warplanes in the US-led coalition have been striking around Sinjar ahead of the offensive and strikes grew more intense at dawn on Thursday.
But Sinjar, located at the foot of Sinjar Mountain about 30 miles (50 kilometres) from the Syrian border, is not an easy target.
One attempt by the Kurds to retake it stalled in December. The militants have been reinforcing their ranks in Sinjar recently in expectation of an assault, though the US-led coalition was not able to give specifics on the size of the IS forces.
"On the radio we hear (IS) calling for reinforcements from Syria," Rebwar Gharib, a deputy sergeant on the central front line said on Thursday.
Islamic State inflicted a wave of terror in the Sinjar area against the minority Yazidi community, members of an ancient religion whom IS views as heretics and accuses of worshipping the devil.
An untold number were killed in the August 2014 assault, and hundreds of men and women were kidnapped - the women enslaved and given to militants across the group's territory in Iraq and Syria, many of the men believed killed, others forced to convert.
Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled into the mountains, where the militants surrounded them, leaving them trapped and exposed in the blazing heat.
The crisis prompted the US to launch air drops of aid to the stranded, and then on August 8, it launched the first round of airstrikes in what would mark the beginning of a broader coalition effort to battle the militant group in Iraq and Syria.
Some of those stranded on Mount Sinjar were rescued by Syrian Kurdish fighters, who cleared a path for the Yazidis to descend from the mountain, cross into Syria, then cross back into northern Iraq's Kurdish autonomous zone.
Then, in December, Kurdish fighters in north-western Iraq managed to drive the militants out of areas on the other side of the mountain, opening a corridor that helped many of the remaining Sinjaris to escape.
Those Kurdish fighters then tried to advance into Sinjar town itself but were fought off by the militants.
Various Kurdish militias on the town's edge have been fighting guerrilla battles for months with IS, damaging or destroying much of the picturesque town of ancient, narrow streets lined with modest stone homes.
The factions include the Turkey-based Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), the Syria-based People's Protection Units (YPG) and Yazidi-led forces billing themselves as the Sinjar Resistance.
Iraqi Kurdish fighters have also held positions further outside the town.